I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Snobbery. In trying to define the quality, I fell down a bit of a rabbit-hole. The dictionary defined snobbery as ‘snobbish conduct or character’ and routed me to ‘snobbishness’. Looking up ‘snobbishness’, I came to the description ‘being, characteristic of, or befitting a snob’. Finally, I got to ‘snob’, or ‘a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.’ The figure of the Snob has become an object of ridicule, a Brian-Sewell-esque figure sniffing over a wine list and huffing that the lower classes just do not know their place these days. If that meant that snobbery had been vanquished, that would be one thing. Instead I see it cropping up in new and more unpleasant ways, particularly in the world of books. Yet however tempting it is to rail against literary pretentiousness and book snobbery, a more worrying thought occurs as I cast my eye over my own bookshelves – are there times when I am guilty of book snobbishness too?
A couple of months ago, WHSmith was named the most hated shop in the United Kingdom. My first reaction was agreement as I am far from being a fan of the place myself. However, I was surprised when a group of authors, including Joanne Harris, leaped to its defence. They pointed out that WHSmith is the shop where working class people buy the majority of their books, tending to feel intimidated by branches of Waterstone’s. Harris pointed out that it ‘may be a good time to remind people getting sniffy about WHSmith that 3 in 10 children in this country do not own a single book, and that 1 in 10 adults is functionally illiterate.‘ And suggesting that people use independent bookshops instead just makes you sound like Marie Antoinette advocating cake rather than bread. If you want to promote literacy, it is important to understand where people feel comfortable accessing reading material.
The last time that I bought a book in WHSmith was in 2013. I was reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series and it had become like a crack addiction. Unexpectedly finishing one volume on a Sunday morning and having errands to run, I spotted a branch of Smith’s and parked up quickly in the hope of getting the next book since otherwise I would have to wait an entire week to visit Waterstone’s. I am not a regular Smith’s shopper. There are reasons for this. I don’t buy magazines, I worked out many years ago that chocolate bars are cheaper in Tesco and bottled water in Boots. Even when it comes to greeting cards, I would have to walk out of my way and the local branch of Paperchase is right by my bus stop. When you add in the fact that once a book has dropped out of the charts, Smith’s tends not to stock it (at least in the smaller branches) and its appeal to me as a regular book shopping destination is rather minimal. There is a bigger reason though as to why I don’t really shop there. When I was growing up, the shop assistants tended to be the same age as me and were even sometimes peers from school who looked down their noses at me. There was nothing more uncomfortable than trying to weigh up whether to buy a book while Becky Whats-her-name sniggered to her colleague and smirked in my general direction. I think it was one of the reasons I got myself an Amazon account. The odd thing is that while I have grown up and am now a young professional, the shop assistants in Smith’s have remained roughly the same age and by association, they bring out the socially awkward teenager in me. Strangely then, I was put off Smith’s by snobbery – but from the staff.
Still, despite my own negative experience of the brand, I found a lot of the commentary about WHSmith to be rather distasteful. Coming back at Joanne Harris were comments centred around how books from Smith’s tend to be more commercial fiction and that people who buy books from Smith’s are generally only shopping for Fifty Shades of Grey anyway … well, that is Snobbery. Capital letter S. What is undeniable is that WHSmith have worked hard over the years to promote reading, from partnerships with the Richard and Judy Book Club to its more recent Zoe Ball Book Club. They also support new authors via their Fresh Talent scheme. Yes, Smith’s does have more commercial fiction, but I have already discussed at length why I find the border between literary/mass market books to be rather arbitrary and anyway – who cares? If that happens to be the kind of book you like reading, then more power to you.
I sometimes feel that I am not the best placed person to defend commercial fiction as I don’t read a great deal of it myself. I also don’t really go for Young Adult, Crime or even Fantasy. I’ve tried it. It’s not that I dislike all of these, I dip in now and again but I’d be hard pressed to come up with any examples that I’d really enjoyed. What I don’t like though is when anybody tries to suggest that one type of reading is ‘better’ than another. I felt so disappointed when the late great Linda Smith put ‘Adults reading Harry Potter’ into Room 101. Who was she, or indeed anyone, to look down her nose at another person’s enjoyment? I have experienced a fair amount of inverted snobbery over the years from people passing judgment on my book choices, from my choice aged twelve to read Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (I had enjoyed the BBC adaptation) to even my recent decision to Brood about the Brontës. I have wanted to curl into a ball when a hairdresser told me that she wouldn’t try to speak to me since the fact I was reading must mean that I was an ‘intellectual’. It doesn’t matter what people read but it’s bad manners to make someone feel bad for their choices.
Perhaps this is an odd thing for me to say given that I am a book blogger, particularly since I know that I’ve written a few vitriolic reviews over the years. It’s just that I started the blog because I wanted to write about my own personal responses to books, not to enforce them. However, do my negative reviews show evidence of Book Snobbery? When I think about the books that I have truly loathed, the ones that I would quite like to wipe from existence, this comes down to Striped Pyjamas and much of the creative oeuvre of Philippa Gregory. I decided to reflect on what it was that I disliked to try and see if I was indeed being snobbish. Striped Pyjamas bothers me because Holocaust denial is a very real problem and when I read that book, I was aghast to discover someone was cutesifying mass murder. Writing that sentence makes me feel queasy the way I did the first time I read it. I can’t get past it. The book disgusts and upsets me on quite an emotional level. It doesn’t feel like snobbishness, but if it is, I apologise.
When it comes to Philippa Gregory, I’m on more solid territory. I liked some of her earlier books, just as I liked Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton. Where Ms Gregory and I run into difficulties though is the point where she started presenting herself as a Serious Historian and implying that her books are based on fact. I don’t mind her telling a story, but as a History Geek, I do resent her spinning stories that are so unabashedly biased against the House of Lancaster and which insist against logic that Richard III did not kill his nephews. As with Pyjamas, it’s the Post-Truth element to Gregory’s writing that I don’t like. It would be fine if she was just another Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt. It’s not the commercial fiction element, but Gregory pretends that her books are true. Again, this doesn’t feel snobbish. Thinking about it, I also remember writing a negative review of commercial fiction writer Dawn O’Porter’s The Cows; my issues were mainly around its various plot holes and weak characterisation. Weirdly, when I check my Amazon affiliate linkage, three people have ordered a copy of it from this website – my highest-selling title so far. So … Dawn O’Porter, you owe me one. Or three.
What I find most abrasive about Book Snobs that I have known over the years, and the reason why I most hope to avoid being among them, is how restrictive their world view seemed to be. While I might laugh over the quotation of being sure to pick books that would make you look good if you died while reading them, that doesn’t mean that I actually follow the advice. Reading is about forming connections, having new experiences and discovering empathy. If you limit yourself to the ‘right’ sort of books, then you are cutting yourself from whole tracts of society. This is why I do still take a look into Crime or Young Adult every so often – I’m still interested, I’m open to suggestions, it’s just not for me right now.
The side to this which really troubles me though is how the form of the book can prompt the most egregious forms of Book Snobbery. When I discovered Audible a few years ago, I used to have a regular commenter who would repeatedly query whether I had ‘really’ read a book if I had ‘only’ listened to it. Despite regular assurances that Audible provides unabridged texts, he remained unconvinced. I found this mildly offensive for a number of reasons. Firstly, I grew up with a friend who was visually impaired and given how bulky Braille books tend to be (they are huge) and how long it can take for contemporary fiction to be translated into it, audiobooks were the easiest way for her to get to read the same books as her peer group. As a teenager who was part of the Harry Potter generation, this was an important factor. However, even for someone non-visually impaired, Audible offers an added convenience. You can listen to your book on the most cramped of commutes. You can listen while completing household jobs. Myself and my fellow-knitters have often discussed the difficulties of reading and crafting simultaneously and Audible has been a popular solution. Not every book makes the jump to audio well but the widespread availability of audio fiction can only be a good thing.
What troubles me even more though is that if people are so quick to pass judgment on others for listening to books, how much more difficult must it be for people requiring large print or looking at the quick read section? I mention these as being more visible than someone listening to a book on headphones. I am a regular library user, I appreciate them as one of the few remaining public spaces where you can just sit without having to pay for the privilege. What I have noticed from my prolonged periods spent there however is that people tend to look furtive when they go near the Large Print section. It was this that got me to thinking about Book Snobbery in the first place. My mother read to me from the earliest days of my life. I had memorised most of my books before I knew how to read. I was a library user from the age of four years old. For me, visiting a bookshop was and is a treat. I am confident in scouring the shelves for my next read. But what if I was from a different background? What if I was one of the 3 in 10 children who grew up owning no books? What if I was of the 1 in 10 who was a functioning illiterate? The supercilious glance of a Book Snob could crush any fleeting inclination to explore further.
I suspect I am not entirely clean of Book Snobbery. Coming out of an English Literature degree, it would remarkable if I was. The fact that I tend to look at a book’s publisher before I purchase is probably quite snobbish. The grammar and punctuation fiend in me is also likely to be another symptom. Possibly I am also guilty of chasing certain books as milestones of being a ‘real’ reader. What I would say in my own defence is that I do try to avoid it. I remind myself repeatedly of Daniel Pennac’s superb 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader. The tenth of these is the right to not have to defend your tastes. More pertinently though is the warning which accompanies the Rights – don’t make fun of people who don’t read, or they never will. Next time you see someone reading a book that you would not choose, remember to smile. And say nothing. Reading is one of the loveliest ways to escape from life and we all have the right to pick what we wish and where we wish, whether we shop in Blackwell’s, Waterstone’s or even WHSmith.